A Stylish Transformation

Two homeowners add comfort and sophistication to their splendid Portsmouth Victorian.

nown for their asymmetrical facades, Victorian houses have unique faces. Dark blue clapboards that contrast with refined white trim beautifully delineate this house. 


Since the 1900s, the large Victorian house on the Portsmouth corner has been a neighborhood presence with its tall, generous style replete with a tower and garden. Inside the original layout, each room was distinct and clearly defined—kitchen, dining room and parlor. And, each space felt private and separate from the others. When World War II resulted in an acute housing shortage for shipyard workers, the house—like many others in Portsmouth—became a multifamily home. After the war, the house eventually became a single family home again.

Current homeowner Kate Belavitch grew up in New Hampshire, and her family owned a little beach cottage on the Seacoast. While in college, she met Jay Horne, a New Yorker. For graduate school, she studied in New York City and their relationship continued. Eventually, they married and lived in Manhattan. And then, surprisingly, Horne convinced Belavitch that relocating to New Hampshire would be great for the whole family. And so they bought a home near the Seacoast.

“When we moved, we looked for reasonable commute distances,” Belavitch says. “I call it my ‘Green Acres moment.’”

As their oldest daughter got ready to go off to college, the couple began to mull over another move. It wasn’t to downsize, as they still had two kids at home. They loved their home. Rather it was a move to a different lifestyle—one that would be lively, culturally stimulating and less labor intensive. They also wanted to minimize driving.

With its carved newel post and stained-glass windows, this entryway creates a dramatic moment. A bold fuchsia painting by New Castle artist Dustan Knight, framed fabric from Christine’s in Rye and a casual rug make this welcome lighthearted.  

Finding the house

It was during these conversations that “Jay said, ‘Let’s walk around and see Portsmouth,’” Belavitch recalls. When the couple did, they knew immediately that the city was right. “We put the word out that we were looking,” she says.

They narrowed down what they were looking for to this basic list: a house with character that they could make their own; a driveway; and a back yard for Big Boy, their German Shepherd—all within walking distance of downtown.

The couple made an offer on one house and lost it. Shortly after, while on the beach in New York, Belavitch got a call from a friend. “He said, ‘I just found your house,’” she says. “But, we had to get to Portsmouth by 9 a.m. on Monday.”

They did and when the front door opened, Belavitch caught her first glimpse of the carved newel post at the base of the stairs, the crown moldings, pocket doors and stained-glass windows. As they walked up the stairs, she turned, looked at Horne and silently said, “Sold.”

The couple did walk around the block to think it over, but came right back, knocked on the door and made an offer.

It was August 2012. Soon, they had stripped out carpeting, took down wallpaper, did some cosmetic painting and fenced the yard for Big Boy.

But more needed to be revised. For example, the existing kitchen addition wasn’t ideal for a family that loves to cook luxurious Italian meals together, all while talking and tasting. “Jay is the real cook in the family,” Belavitch says. “And all the kids love to cook.”

Also, the house didn’t connect to the outside the way their old house had. In fact, the garden seemed quite distant: to even see it, you had to go down some steps and walk around a corner to the back of the house.

The changes begin!

In 2014, Belavitch contacted Manypenny Murphy Architecture in Portsmouth, and by the spring of 2015, the work had begun. When architects Alyssa Manypenny Murphy and Brian Murphy reflect on the work they did for Belavitch and Horne, it’s with real understanding. In fact, the Murphys live in the same neighborhood and are busy raising a family as well.

“Kate really wanted her kitchen to connect to the back yard. It was a subtle tweak that changed everything,” Brian says.

“We all approached the work with great respect for the house,” Alyssa says. “It’s a beautiful example of Victorian architecture.”

“Every house in Portsmouth has evolved over time, and those evolutions can either degrade the character of the house or contribute to it,” Brian says. “We wanted the new work to feel like it belonged to the original house.”

First, Manypenny Murphy Architecture stretched the house lengthwise just a bit to add more space upstairs for the master suite. Then, the existing kitchen addition was enlarged and the appliances—stove, sink, etc.—reoriented to the street side of the house, which catches the morning light. To create more connection and flow throughout, the family room and dining room were switched.

Spectacular Calacatta marble for counters and backsplashes defines this kitchen’s elegant look. Travertine floor tiles, natural cherry cabinets 
and a custom-made farmer’s table from reclaimed oak give depth to the warm palette.

Now, there was a smooth lengthwise axis and transition from the kitchen through a butler’s pantry to the dining room. It aligns the whole house with the neighborhood. With the larger kitchen, an informal seating area was added along with a roomy breakfast nook. And for all the creative cooks in the family, there is plenty of room for counters, a farmer’s table, a galley pantry and airy space for three large chandeliers that Belavitch found online at Anthropologie.

“Once the ground floor got settled, the second floor fell into place,” Brian says.

Upstairs, Alyssa and Brian designed the layout for a family bathroom, installed an efficient laundry and created a master suite with a private bath.

Connecting the outdoors

But what would be the best way to create that horizontal axis connecting the kitchen to the garden? Victorian houses stand high on their foundations, and this one was a good three feet above grade. Also, the family didn’t want to shovel steps in the winter.

For the driveway entry, Alyssa and Brian designed a small, ground-level vestibule with a few steps up to a landing that incorporates views of the street and garden. Alyssa and Brian even designed a space under the stairs for Big Boy.

To connect the kitchen to the garden, Alyssa and Brian collaborated with Jeffrey Hyland and Jennifer Martel of Ironwood Design Group, LLC in Newmarket. Hyland, the firm’s founder and principal landscape architect, suggested bringing the patio up to the kitchen level. The horizontal axis was now in place.

Martel, a landscape architect, refined the patio, driveway and garden designs to have circular elements that soften the angularity of the Victorian house. “The driveway especially feels very social,” Martel says. “It’s just the right size for a little car to turn around in.”

The details

There’s more of course. That’s what’s great about a Victorian. By now Matt Lord and Mike Myers of Jewett Farms and Company in York, Maine, were building custom Shaker-style cabinets in natural cherry. Lord and Myers added floating shelves, and designed and built the farmer’s table with reclaimed oak. The table’s design had input from everyone.

For the galley pantry, Belavitch worked directly with carpenter Travis Higgins of Lynchpin Design Company in Hampton. “I know how my family works,” she explains. “And I knew exactly what I needed—right down to a spot for the wireless printer and a place for my chalkboard.”

Designer Mari Woods, of Mari Woods Kitchen Bath Home, LLC in Portsmouth, in close collaboration with Belavitch, began to incorporate texture and style. Belavitch chose travertine tile for the kitchen floor, which has radiant heat. (The house has three heating zones, which includes the original steam radiators.)

Using marble

For the sink in the small, downstairs powder room, Belavitch and Horne wanted to use Portoro marble, a rare black marble veined with golden yellow threads. This beautiful marble became the driver for the art deco décor. “The black mirrors create a dark, moody feel, and the gold and black wallpaper really complements it,” Woods says. “It’s dramatic and fun.”

The two upstairs baths also both carried the marble themes, creating a sense of continuity throughout the house.

For the butler’s pantry that defines that transition from addition to house, Belavitch chose Benjamin Moore Naples Blue in a highly lacquered finish. Woods also found a tawny, finely grained marble for the bar countertop.

For the kitchen, Belavitch and Horne chose Calacatta marble and worked with Janet Hawkins, who owns Renaissance Stone Services in Portsmouth. “I discussed the choice of marble with Kate and went over all the downsides of spilling anything acidic on it. That includes lemons, limes, vinegar, alcohol and coffee—all of which will cause a chemical reaction and etch the stone with rough crystallized calcium,” Hawkins says. “But Kate and Jay know a lot about marble and were prepared.”

To find a worthy slab, Hawkins and her husband, Chip, drove to select marble yards. Calacatta is considered a specialty marble and is quarried very carefully in northern Italy near Carrera. The stone is almost a translucent white with graceful, bold gray and gold veining. “When we found the slab,” Hawkins says. “We sent photos to Kate and Jay.”

And then the slow work of measuring, cutting and polishing began. “We work with stone the way the Italians do,” Hawkins says. “We do it by hand. The stone isn’t just pushed through a machine. It’s polished, rubbed and touched. I love that tall backsplash at the back of their stove with the pot filler.”

Now, a home

Now with family photos, furniture, and soft rugs incorporated, Belavitch and Horne’s new home was almost complete. Favorite artwork added color and verve. Artwork included a David Witbeck painting, Sarah Minor floor cloth and wind sculpture by Lyman Whitaker. More chandeliers were sourced from Cam’s Antiques in Exeter. Then two Vespas became part of the mix, and this home was ready to go.

Now that the home is complete, Belavitch is on to a new venture. In September, she opened a boutique women’s clothing store called Birch in downtown Portsmouth.

Mari Woods (left), of Mari Woods Kitchen Bath Home, LLC in Portsmouth, chats with homeowner Kate Belavitch.

A Sub-Zero Pro 48 refrigerator with a window allows for a peek inside. The double wall ovens are by Bosch; behind the cabinets, double dishwasher drawers are by Fischer and Paykel. 

Left: The family room is all about having a cozy place for everyone to relax. It’s a great place to watch movies or read a book. 

Right: With a lovely view through to the dining room, the butler’s pantry establishes the home’s lengthwise axis. Benjamin Moore’s Naples Blue in a highly lacquered finish gives the space its sparkle.

Left: The dining room and family room changed places during the renovation. This small switch made a big impact on the feel of the house. 

Right: A ground floor “mud room” eliminates the need to shovel steps in winter. Dustan Knight’s exuberant painting of poppies brightens this entryway.

Left: Homeowner Kate Belavitch (left) chats with Alyssa Manypenny Murphy, of Manypenny Murphy Architecture in Portsmouth. 

Right: An inside-outside connection gives this Victorian a relaxed vibe. It was achieved by bringing the patio up to meet the house on its high brick foundation.

Left: Thanks to a design that subtly extended the length of the house, a master bedroom suite was added. Soft hues and textures—combined with paintings by Emma Ashby of Portsmouth—fashion this oasis. 

Right: Carrera marble and chips of Calacatta marble lend a vibrant look to this sleek, modern master bath.

Left: The family bath on the second floor sports a marble backsplash and old-fashioned-style fixtures. The look is turn-of-the-century but with modern functionality.

Right: The downstairs powder room just off the kitchen features a Portoro marble sink, art-deco style wallpaper and a black-mirrored surround. The tiled floor incorporates chips of black marble. 

Categories: Architecture and Interiors